11/17/2011 08:00:00

Nicholas W. Tschoegl, 93

Nicholas W. Tschoegl, professor of chemical engineering, emeritus, passed away on the morning of November 14 at his home in Pasadena. He was 93.

An expert on polymers, Tschoegl did research on synthetic rubber and a type of large molecules called block copolymers, studying how their molecular structures affected their properties. Some of his most important scientific achievements included work to understand the effect of different pressures on the viscosity and elasticity of rubbery materials. His book, The Phenomenological Theory of Linear Viscoelastic Behavior, remains the authoritative text on the mechanical response of polymeric materials. 

"Besides being an eminent polymer scientist, Nick Tschoegl had a broadly commanding intellect," says John Seinfeld, the Louis E. Nohl Professor and professor of chemical engineering. "He was fluent in upward of a dozen languages and could discuss virtually any area of history or language with authority. He was a true renaissance scholar."

"It was Nick's curiosity that set him apart," says Bob Cohen (PhD '72), the St. Laurent Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and one of Tschoegl's first graduate students. "I was in his group of graduate students in the late '60s; young people were looking for gurus in that time period, and Nick was ours. The discussions at our remarkable weekly research-group lunches at Caltech's Athenaeum were shaped by Nick's passions—topics such as the lost city of Atlantis, structural connections among the dozen languages he spoke fluently, and the demise of central European nobility in pre-World War II Europe. He treated us like family, opened his home to us, and took us on amazing field trips to places like Lancaster, California, to see the poppies bloom in the desert and to San Simeon to examine the reflecting pools at Hearst Castle."

Tschoegl was born in 1918 in Moravia, which is in the eastern part of what's now the Czech Republic. When he was just three months old, his father died during the end of World War I on the Italian front. Raised by his mother, he would spend his formative years in Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. By the time he was nine years old, he had become fascinated with electricity, which sparked his interest in science.

At around this time he also developed a passion for languages and linguistics that would follow him throughout his life. Already proficient in German, Hungarian, and Czech, he went on to study English, French, Italian, and Latin. In high school, he picked up some Turkish and learned Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. He eventually studied other writing systems, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform, Chinese, and Japanese.

After Tschoegl finished high school in 1936, he joined the Hungarian Army, as was required at the time. War was imminent, and after Europe became engulfed in conflict, he was stationed in Ukraine from 1942 through 1943, fighting in three major battles. He then returned to Hungary in 1944. At the end of the war, he was shot by a Soviet scout during the siege of Budapest. He managed to escape from his assailant, running into the basement of a nearby apartment. Later, his friend Sofia took care of him as he recovered in his great-aunt's apartment. Sofia had stepped out of the apartment when a Russian soldier came in and accused him of being a Nazi, threatening to shoot him. Fortunately, Sofia—who spoke Russian—returned and intervened, saving Tschoegl's life.

Soon, Germany surrendered and Hungary came under Soviet control. Tschoegl married Sofia in 1946, and they had their first son, Adrian, in 1947. In 1948, he and his family fled from Communist rule. Sophia and Adrian took a train to Italy while he took a boat across a lake in the dead of night to the Austrian border. "I'll never forget this moment in all my life," he said in his oral history.

After a year in Austria, the family went to Sydney, Australia, where their second son, Christopher, was born in 1954. Tschoegl finished his education, receiving a bachelor's degree at the New South Wales University of Technology in 1954 and a PhD in physical chemistry in 1958 from the same institution, which was renamed the University of New South Wales. He then joined the Bread Research Institute of Australia, doing pioneering work on the rheology of wheat flour dough; rheology is the study of the deformation and flow of matter. In 1961, he accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin working on synthetic polymers, then spent two years at the Stanford Research Institute, starting in 1963, before joining Caltech in 1965 as an associate professor of materials science. Tschoegl became a professor of chemical engineering two years later, and was named an emeritus professor in 1985.

"He led by example, holding us to his own high standards, teaching us how to ask the right questions, and insisting that we remain open to the partial answers that came back from our experimental thesis projects," Cohen says. "I can hear him telling us to 'live with your data' before drawing conclusions. Most of all, he wanted us to learn and to enjoy learning."

Tschoegl is survived by his son Adrian, daughter-in-law Naomi, and two grandchildren, Matthew and Elizabeth. His wife Sofia passed away in 2008 and his son Christopher passed away in 1995.

A memorial service will be held in his honor in the East West room of the Athenaeum on Friday, December 2, from 1 to 3 p.m.

Written by Marcus Woo